HC Deb 03 August 1972 vol 842 cc938-41
7. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are now his plans for a referendum on the border.

19. Mr. Kilfedder

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when special legislation will be introduced to provide for the holding of a plebiscite in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Whitelaw

The Government hope to introduce legislation in the autumn with a view to holding a poll as soon as possible after its approval.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I thank my right hon. Friend for, in effect, taking over my Bill. Will not a referendum enable those many Roman Catholics who, according to a recent poll, favour the Union to demonstrate that union with Britain is not a sectarian cause?

Mr. Whitelaw

It is not for me to prejudge what people might decide to do on such an occasion. But certainly I note what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Foley

Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up an ambiguity which has developed in the last month or so? In response to a question from me, the right hon. Gentleman assured us that the political parties in Northern Ireland would be consulted about the form of a referendum and about the time of it. In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has not yet started consultations, is it wise on his part to announce dates before he has consulted them?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have been discussing with and consulting a large variety of people about this, about conferences, and about other general matters. I believe that it would be advisable to hold such a plebiscite or referendum, whatever it is called, as soon as it can be reasonably held. That is why I say that I hope to hold it as soon as the legislation can be put through.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the plebiscite is held before the local government elections and that those elections are not turned into a conflict over the border? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the plebiscite will be held on a Province-wide basis and not on the electoral areas set out in the draft order?

Mr. Whitelaw

It would be advisable to hold such a referendum before the local government elections. I must always remain firmly of the view, to the House and to everyone else, particularly in view of recent developments, that the security actions must be paramount: they must come before everything else. Subject to that, I hope that it will be possible. The question of how the plebiscite will be held will be seen when the Bill comes forward, but I note my hon. Friend's view and I have no reason to dissent from it.

Mr. McNamara

What question or questions will be asked? Who is to ask them? What other interests will be invited to state an opinion upon the future of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

I must reserve that matter until I bring the legislation before the House, because it involves the whole question of the preparation of the legislation.

Mr. Deedes

Might there not be advantages in having the two votes—the referendum and the local government election—at the same time?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is a possibility. It has been strongly urged on me in previous supplementary questions and by some of those to whom I have talked that it would be better to have the referendum before the local government elections rather than at the same time. I am open to receive various suggestions, including that put forward by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Douglas

Is the Secretary of State well aware of what he is taking on board here? He acknowledges that the security position is paramount. Is he not willing to acknowledge also that statements about the plebiscite might in effect endanger the security position?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is exactly why I say that the security situation must be paramount.

Mr. Adley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that not everybody is enamoured of his proposal for a referendum or plebiscite? Is he aware also that views on Ulster are not necessarily identical throughout Great Britain with those in Northern Ireland? Is it not reasonable that, if there is to be a plebiscite or referendum on one part of the United Kingdom, everybody in the United Kingdom should expect to take part?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my hon. Friend says. As to the rest of the United Kingdom, the House must have regard to the perfectly clear assurances which have been given by Governments of both parties and which form the basis of the constitutional position on which Northern Ireland stands today. [HON. MEMBERS: "leave it there."] I know, but I am saying that people must have regard to that point, because that is the whole basis of the Act on which I am working and of the plebiscite which was promised at the time of the Act and which was at that time very widely supported.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Does the Secretary of State accept that we agree with the view that a plebiscite or referendum would only polarise views and tell us what we know, but that we made it clear earlier this week in the House that a carefully planned plebiscite, perhaps held after the conference and perhaps after talking to all concerned, might be a valuable step?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. It was widely accepted on both sides of the House at the time that the Temporary Provisions Bill went through that a plebiscite was part of the proposals which were put forward. We are, therefore, committed to it. I have received much advice about the exact timing of it. I have stated my view that I still believe that it would be desirable to hold the plebiscite before the local elections if the security situation and all other circumstances permit.